Published: February, 1995
I wanted to begin this column by saying that it really doesn't matter that Newt's at the helm. And that it is fundamentally insignificant whether Democrats or Republicans sit in the White House or control Congress. But with proposals for putting the children of poor women into orphanages, I feel I can't be so brazen. Newt has reached a level of mean-spiritedness I can't imagine coming from even the most stony Democrat's heart.
Still, I'm not willing to let the Democrats off that easy. The media would like us to think that Democrats and Republicans reside at wildly different ends of the political spectrum. You'd think from all the hoopla in the press that a massive Republican revolution had just fundamentally transformed politics in this country. All this makes for a good story, you know. Gives us the impression that we have a real choice when we pull the lever on election day.
Which brings me down to the point I really want to make: Both Democrats and Republicans ultimately represent the same interests, namely those of business, its owners, investors and managers. As Noam Chomsky says in his book of interviews Keeping the Rabble in Line: "We certainly have two candidate-producing parties. We don't have two parties that people participate in. We don't have two parties with different interests. They basically reflect one or another faction (of business)." Note that when Chomsky talks of "business," he's not referring to the little Mom-and-Pop store down the street. He's referring to the huge multinationals that exercise tremendous control over U.S. policy and politics.
The similarities between the two parties become more clear when you look at what falls outside of the framework for political debate. For instance, both parties have limited the welfare debate to the "problem" of welfare for the poor. Neither talks of the problem of welfare for the rich, which eats up a magnificently bigger chunk of the budget than Aid to Families with Dependent Children. The Progressive Party Institute estimates that $51 billion is spent each year for direct federal government subsidies to corporations and that tax breaks to corporations exceed $53 billion, a sum that dwarfs welfare programs for the poor by almost $30 billion.
This money isn't going to small businesses, either. Many of the recipients are multinational corporations on the Fortune 500 list, according to a Jan. 28 article in the Global Times. That article lists several examples of the ways in which taxpayers support corporations:
Corporate welfare is usually justified to the masses under the pretext that it will create more jobs. But, as Chomsky points out, every time you hear the word "jobs," substitute the term "profits" and you'll be closer to the real reason. Corporations are making record profits even as they eliminate jobs in this country and send them to parts of the world where workers can't organize, are paid pennies a day and no environmental regulations need be attended to...
But there is hope. Our elected leaders might not be able to save us, but we can certainly save ourselves. Throughout history ordinary people have effectively organized to bring about massive social changes. To quote Chomsky one last time: "There is only one way to deal with these things. Being alone, you can't do anything. All you can do is deplore the situation. But if you join with other people, you can make changes. Millions of things are possible, depending on where you want to put your efforts."
Julia Kasdorf's parents grew up in a small, conservative Amish/Mennonite community and then left it. Kasdorf is still working out the implications of that departure in her writing. The poems in her first book, Sleeping Preacher (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1992), explore the familiar Mennonot tension of trying to straddle two worlds: the one we (or our parents left) and the one we live in now.
Kasdorf herself grew up in Irwin, PA, which isas she describes it"just an exit on the freeway," although she absorbed plenty of Mennonite culture from the community in Scottdale, where her family attended church. But perhaps more importantly for her development as a poet, she spent summers in her parents' childhood home of Mifflin County, PA. There she listened to the many stories told by her relatives, eventually carrying those stories with her to New York City, where she has lived for the past 11 years.
Some of those stories found their way into Sleeping Preacher, which won the 1991 Agnes Lunch Starrett prize for poetry. Starting out with stories from her parents' world of hay bales, chicken farms and block-stockinged women, the poems in Sleeping Preacher move into the author's world, where she sits in a Manhattan restaurant and wonders if she's the only one there who "will admit he knows how hot a henhouse becomes under a corrugated tin roof like the restaurant's ceiling?" (50).
The Mennonite community rallied around her book when it was published in 1992, which came as a great surprise to Kasdorfand to many others who couldn't imagine Mennonites rallying around poetry at all, much less the quietly subversive poetry of a woman outside of the Menno mainstream. Kasdorf spent much of the next two years travelling to Mennonite churches, schools and conferences and reading her poetry.
Now that things have quieted down, Kasdorf is writing her second book of poems while working toward a doctorate in English Education at New York University. For her dissertation, she is looking at the relationship of the Mennonite artist to her/his community, basing her research on her own experience and that of another Mifflin County writer, J. W. Yoder, best known for penning Roseanne of the Amish. His last book, Amish Traditions, a kind of scholarly critique of Amish culture and belief, resulted in Yoder being refused communion within his Mennonite community. Kasdorf has met no such fate but has instead found that many Mennonitesand non-Mennonites alike seem to love a good, honest story.
~ Sheri Hostetler
Mennonot: Where do you write from?
Kasdorf: That's really changed. Many of the poems in Sleeping Preacher are almost direct reporting of oral stories I heard growing up, or combinations of stories. There I was very directly writing out of a family/cultural tradition. I guess generally I write out of places of tension, so whatever I'm trying to solve and work through in my life becomes poems. So Sleeping Preacher in lots of ways, looking at it now from a distance, is very much about trying to locate myself in relation to family history, Mennonite culture and the world I was inhabiting in New York when I was writing those poems.
The stories that became most vivid, that I kept returning to, seemed to demand to be written. When I later looked at them, I realized there's so many about my father leaving. I realize now I was using the stories of my past and my parents as metaphors to find ways to write about my own journey. So I was appropriating their stories, but yet the emotional force behind them is from my experience.
Now I'm writing out of something that's not as clearly located. The poems from what I can tell are about things like gender, sexuality, the body, mortality even.
Mennonot: So they are less "Mennonite."
Kasdorf: Yeah. Although I guess I'm always writing partly through that lens.
Mennonot: There's something you wrote in one of your poems that really grabbed me. You said that Pennsylvania Dutch had only words enough for "farm work, cooking and gossip." The thing that struck me is that there is a lot that Pennsylvania Dutch doesn't have words for.
Mennonot: So to really reflect on your experience in a way we're more accustomed to, you couldn't use that language?
Kasdorf: Well, not only the language but also the culture. And how do you determine which comes first? It's not a culture of individual reflection, it's not a culture of individual identity. I'm speaking grossly here. It's not useful to sit around and think about yourself in that world.
Mennonot: But it is a culture of collective identity, and that's where the stories come in?
Kasdorf: Yeah. And I really believe that storytelling is a form of collective writing because stories change, stories shift with audience, with time, and that's something that I'm real interested in thinking aboutthe contribution of that community to my work, because I feel as though I was helped to write those stories. People were writing them orally before I came along. And people were writing them in such a way that whatever subversive meanings emerge in my telling in some ways I believe already existed there. A lot of the stories that I heard were not happy stories. They were stories of conflict or sadness or people being rejected by the community. And the fact that they kept telling them, I believe, is related to the notion that there are things left unresolved. Like this particular set of stories about my great-grandfather. He was an alcoholic. Even though the stories are supposedly told as cautionary talesthis is the evil of alcohol, I'm telling you this story to warn youthe stories would be told with tears rolling down people's faces. It's not a cautionary tale, it's a story of somebody that got kicked out and the pain that lingered.
Mennonot: What do you do with other people's stories of pain that they've experienced at the hands of the community, and your own stories? There's a sense in which I want the people who have caused that pain to be accountable for it, in the sense that I want them to know they either collectively or individually were part of causing that pain. But how do you do that in a way that's, I guess, loving? That's been a struggle for me. I don't want what I'm writing or doing to be about bitterness.
Kasdorf: I was really influenced in college and beyond by modernism. H.D. (the American poet Hilda Doolittle) especially. For a long time I just wanted to make beautiful objects, crystal clear. I believed you could find the right word. I sort of trivialize it now, but it was really good discipline to believe in all that. There's still a lot of that in me. I want to make beautiful things. So for me, the answer to your question is to take that pain and to make it beautiful. That's what transforms it into poetry.
Mennonot: I want to talk a bit about the relationship of the artist/writer to the Mennonite community. Al Reimer, in his book Mennonite Literary Voices: Past and Present, has made a distinction between the community-minded, inward-looking Swiss-German/American Mennonite writers and the more individualistic Dutch-Russian/Canadian writers. He suggests that some of the Swiss-German writers take on the role of the scribe for the community, versus the work of Canadian writers (Patrick Friesen, Di Brandt, Rudy Wiebe, etc.) who advocate the writer's artistic freedom and autonomy. Scott Holland has said that "Julia Kasdorf's evolving work situates the writer in a creative space somewhere between the mimetic memory of the scribe and the myth of an autonomous artistic genius." (From "Imagining Peace in a Religiously Plural World: Response to Gordon Kaufman," a paper presented at the MCC Peace Theology Colloquium in June 1994.) Can you say more about that?
Kasdorf: It's been very important to me for a long time to question the sort of Romantic notion about the relationship between the writer and community. I'm thinking of the last few pages in (James Joyce's) Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, where Stephen Daedelus goes out to forge the uncreated conscience of his race, with "silence, exile and cunning." Those three words are ones I carry around and turn over in my mind. I have to say that's not been my experience.
Living as I do is a kind of exile, but it isn't that either. For me, it's been really important to try to find a way to conceive of this relationship theoretically in such a way that enables me to remain in connection with where I come from. One thing that's been helpful is Patricia Hill Collins' book, Black Feminist Thought. She talks about the position of black female intellectuals who don't want to abandon their community. They somehow want to maintain ties. They situate themselves in such a way that they can be critics and interpreters of the world and of the community.
It's not such a new idea really. But it's not one that comes up when people think of artists. They think of the dramatic gesture. Which turns up in Al Reimer's book, that conception of the artist as being romantic with a capital "R". He has a phrase in there something like Shelly's "mapmakers of the soul." Reimer echoes that and says something about writers being pioneers on the frontiers of the consciousness, leading the way. And I don't know. I don't want that. And I just don't believe it, and I don't believe that even James Joyce was entirely doing that. All those voices were already there. All those people were talking through him. He may have had to pull out in order to hear them, but he was still in conversation with the community in Dublin.
I think the stance I'm talking about would have been very difficult to take even 30 years ago in a Mennonite community. I feel very lucky to be in a unique position in relation to the oral tradition but also connected to another form of experience. My children won't have the connection that I do.
Mennonot: Why don't Mennonites write, in terms of creative writing?
Kasdorf: Well, first of all I think that Mennonites suddenly do write. When I was going around to Mennonite communities, people would come up and tell me that they had things at home or I would find out that an older woman in the community had self-published a book of poems. It is happening, more than I expected. But why there's been 300 years of silence since Martyr's Mirror? It has much to do with a lack of education, but my sense is that it also has a lot to do with the shame of speaking with an individual voice.
I want to tell you a little story which I think is really emblematic of all this. Before the book came out, this sort of miracle happened that Alice Quinn, poetry editor at the New Yorker, got a press release about the book from Pitt (Sleeping Preacher's publisher). And she has some kind of interest in the Amish, who knows why. So she called Pitt and asked them to send the manuscript, and she bought four of the poems. All this without me knowing. Then they called me up one daywell I sort of fell off my chair. One of those New Yorkers I sent to a friend of mine who is a professional Mennonite institutional guy, who I knew growing up. And he wrote back the strangest letter. He said "When your book comes out, I hope you'll be very strong because there will be a lot of people who will be angry. But there will also be a lot of people who will really like it, and in that case I hope that you'll pray to be humble." And I was so enraged. Way beyond proportion. I wrote him a long letter and said "What just exactly do you mean by pride? Tell me what it means to be proud in this case!" Then he wrote back and said it means something like anything that threatens the community. Just as in the nation anything that is unpatriotic threatens the nation.
Mennonot: And who defines what is in the nation's best interest, what threatens the nation? Who defines what the Mennonite community's best interests are, what is threatening? Part of my growing is to say that I'm part of that community too, and there's a lot of people who feel like I do who are also part of that community. And there's a lot of things that happen that I don't think are in the best interests of this part of the community. There's a myth that there's one big Mennonite community and one idea about what is in this community's best interests, and it's just not true. I think that has to do with who has power and who doesn't in the Mennonite community.
Kasdorf: I also wrote to him about power as pride. Isn't it sort of prideful going around telling people how to be? I was thinking in particular that Mifflin County is quite famous for church splits. It started out as one Amish settlement and now there's 17 churches or so. I was remembering in particular a great uncle of mine who was part of a church split in a Beachy Amish kind of group over Sunday School and the German language. The kind of power plays that happen and the way a community can be severed. And in my case, the fact that this guy, for example, could appoint himself to chasten me. Maybe this is what it comes down to: There are the official interpreters of the community, and then when there's an unofficial interpreter, that's quite threatening. And I could see how something like Mennonot especially is threatening, moreso than poetry. Poetry you can sort of fudge. But you're writing in plain English.
Mennonot: And that's what I meant about power. Who has the power to identify what is the official take on things and who doesn't? So what does all this have to do with why Mennonites don't write?
Kasdorf: Well, it's the fear that comes of this situation. The fact that I could be so shaken by what that guy said. The thing that I was reacting out of was the fear in my heart that he might be right. The pressure to tell the story in the standard way, to accept the story but more importantly to accept the given interpretation and just repeat that rather than to make meaning on your own or in conversation with others. I think that's really what Sleeping Preacher is aboutthat it's the old stories but they're in conversation with other voices that come from outside the community. And that's what's scary about itthat is, for the people to whom it's scary. My friends (who aren't Mennonite) couldn't believe that anyone would be upset by that book. They said, "So you wrote a book about cows and pies, who could that upset?"
~ J.R. Burkholder
Part One: The shallow triviality of generic public prayer.
Soon after I voluntarily consented to write something about involuntary school prayer, I came across a "proposed school prayer" published, of all places, on the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal:
John F. Bramfeld's prayer parody (WSJ, January 12, 1995) was apparently intended to make a point against the extremes of political correctness. But it clearly demonstrates the futility and absurdity of any effort to compose a generic prayer that would not offend any or all constituents of our pluralistic society. And it also illustrates my first point the petty shallowness of all the proposals to "restore" prayer to the public schools. (My other three points: the prayer-propelled politics of religious nationalism, the doubtful undergirding of morality via mandated prayer, and the heresy of common-denominator public prayer.)
Recall a bit of what has happened around these issues. The parody of prayer above is obviously a few degrees more esoteric than the official prayer that the New York State Board of Regents produced in 1951:
"Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers, and our country."
Although captive to the classic King James language, that prayer undoubtedly was crafted so as to appear doctrinally flavorless. Nevertheless, it provoked diverse reactions. Conservative Lutherans called it "an abomination and a blasphemy," while disgruntled parents challenged it all the way to the Supreme Court as a state-sponsored establishment of religion.
The Court agreed, and June 25, 1962 became the date that some folks mark as the official expulsion of God Almighty from the classrooms and hallways of the public schools. Since then the courts have consistently ruled that mandated school prayers are unconstitutional, although "moments of silence" have been allowed to stand.
Public opinion polls, however, show that large majorities of our fellow citizens have always favored prayer in schools. And now the supporters of official praying are back in force. Emboldened by the seismic shift in the political climate, (i.e., the Republicans won an election), as many as a million petitioners have called for a Constitutional amendment.
It's paradoxical to note that the same people who are yelling about getting government out of the way and drafting drastic proposals to reduce the power of government, are at the same time calling for a massive effort to establish government-sanctioned religious observance.
Part Two: Unholy alliance
Let's ask: who are the leaders of the school prayer movement? And put aside for the moment those many sincere but misguided folks (I'll speak to their error in part four) who may truly think they are doing Almighty God a favor by seeking to have his name invoked (it is of course a masculine deity) in American classrooms.
I suggest that we check out the real views of those politicians (and occasional religious leaders) who are calling for mandated school prayers. My short list reveals a preponderance of flag-wrapped chauvinists, militaristic hawks, enemies of the United Nations, defenders of the pre-1960s status quo on civil rights, etc. In short, it's a bald-faced nationalist/patriotic agenda shaped by exponents of a "Christian America."
Now for a brief excursus into ancient history. Let's take a quick look at the religion of Rome during the first centuries of the Christian era. The mark of true religion was pietas, a term whose meaning began with attitudes of honor, respect and fidelity to parents and ancestors, then came to include loyalty and obedience to the customs, traditions and laws of Rome. Devotion to ancestors and civic duties were one and the same. Reverence to one's community, to Rome, to the "fatherland" and to the gods were all of a piece, and culminated in the regular rituals of public worship.
Does this sound familiar? These were the Romans who persecuted the Christians, largely because their refusal to join in public worship undermined the city or state. The gods preserved and maintained order; religion as public piety was the basis for providential sustenance. This setup is what Rousseau (centuries later) came to call "civil religion," a tidy arrangement holding together the life of society with appropriate religious sanctions.
One more historical note. For the early church, everything changed with emperor Constantine claiming the sign of the cross. The Constantinian settlement quickly accepted in principle much of the Roman civil religion orientation. The one empire was thought to be sustained by the one God, the supreme monarch. Ever since, Christendom has suffered confusion. To whom do believers pray? Constantine's god who maintains social order, or the subversive and liberating God whom Jesus addressed intimately as "Father"?
All Christians, but especially those who claim to follow in the Anabaptist tradition, should be extremely wary of any state sponsorship of religious exercise. When civic ceremonies, such as saluting the flag, gather the emotional authority of religion, when prayer is built around the slogans of empire ("bless us and our country"), when conformity and loyalty to prescribed ritual is routinely expected, then Christians must be on guard.
Let's be clear. Our quarrel is not with genuine prayer; the quiet plea from the heart, uttered or wordless, is never out of place. And such prayer has never been banned from schoolsit cannot be. It's the mandated public prayer, the ceremonial ritual programmed and led by designated authorities, which represents the reversion to pre-Christian Rome.
Part Three: A wrong-headed approach to public morality.
The other day a commentator on local public radio provided a pertinent example. He first referred to an unnamed critic of school prayers, whose thesis was that instilling values is not the job of the schools. The commentator, Mike (I think that was his name), then made a rather unusual plea for civic morality grounded in religion. Having just drafted the above material on Roman religion, I was caught up by his quotations from Roman classics on the need for religious sanctions to undergird basic societal values and virtues: loyalty, honesty, responsibility, etc. After running through a checklist of all that's wrong in the country these days, Mike concluded: "If reintroducing school prayer would enable the restoration of these values, I'm all for it."
There you have it! Socially redeeming utilitarian prayer! Certainly not an intimate act of worship, the communion of the soul with its god, but formal prayer in the classroom advocated as a means to another end. Of course we are all aware of serious moral deficiencies in our society, a veritable vacuum of civic values. But it's totally misguided to attempt to work at that problem by debasing religion, by daring to use the forms of sacred worship in such an instrumental way.
Genuine prayer is far too precious to become a functional classroom tool. To expect a teacher to lead in prayer, or even to invite students to take turns, is to place prayer on the level of repeating the alphabet or the multiplication table (or doesn't anyone do that anymore in this age of pocket calculators?).
Part Four: Classroom prayer as heresy.
Much of the opposition to school prayer (from both religious and other sources) focuses on matters of coercion, minority rights, and the separation of church and state. I find it surprising how seldom anyone raises a biblical or theological objection. But for serious believers, this is the heart of the matter.
Here the classic dictum "What would Jesus do?" is most relevant. Recall his fundamental teaching on prayer as found in Matt. 6.1 ff. "Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; . . . . And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; . . . But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret."
This is the essential logic of prayer. It is a sacred privilege of the believer, not an occasion for demonstrating piety in public. Prayer is an affair of the soul, a most profoundly personal act. By its very nature, it must be voluntary. Authentic prayer can be offered, quietly and intimately, in any circumstance. It doesn't require an official mandate to make it possible. Why would a genuine disciple of Jesus want to participate in a generic "nonsectarian" act of so-called prayer? It borders on blasphemy!
Let's recognize that attempts to use prayer for political purposes are found on both sides of the aisle. Much of the current public posturing features the efforts of right-wing groups to bring ceremonial prayer into the classroom. I have suggested that this project appears to be advocated largely by those forces that are most eager to demand conformist national loyalty and promote a particular set of values and beliefs.
But over the decades we have seen some disturbing uses of prayer as a political weapon by liberal groups also. Who can ever forget the powerful propaganda effect of those dramatic scenes from the civil rights movement, when praying demonstrators were assaulted by the segregationist forces? From an ethical and theological perspective, however, I question that strategy. I have never been able to agree with those good friends who joined a prohibited prayer meeting in the Capitol rotunda some years ago as an antiwar protest. I believe that the only appropriate occasion for offering prayer in a public setting is in the gathering of believers called together for worship.
A confessional conclusion.
The issue cuts both ways: it is sacrilege to invoke the particular prayer forms of a distinct religious community outside the gathered worship of that community. And to invite committed believers to join in a generic prayer is to trivialize the character of genuine belief.
Perhaps the real endangered species is authentic prayer and worship in the Christian tradition. Let's put prayer back where it belongs in the closet!
(J. R. Burkholder lives in Goshen, IN, and is thoroughly enjoying retirement from his teaching days at Goshen College.)
Click on the above to read Ross L. Bender's column in this issue.
Ross L. Bender is a regular columnist for Mennonot. Ross lives in Philly, teaches ESL at Penn, and attends the West Philadelphia Mennonite Fellowship. The title of Bender's column comes from a poem by Algernon Charles Swinburne: Pleasure with pain for leaven, summer with flowers that fell, remembrance fallen from heaven, and madness risen from hell. You can email Ross at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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